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Photoshop Actions Offer Awesome Automatic Portrait Retouching

This shortcut turns tedious retouching steps into a one-click process

I’m a commercial portrait photographer, so I find myself retouching images on an almost daily basis. That means that there are a lot of processes I repeat again and again—and some of them are quite tedious. I’d much rather press one button and accomplish a dozen different edits than have to manually do several basic clicks by hand. So, whenever possible, I like to automate my workflow with Photoshop actions that do some of the tedious heavy lifting for me. To that end, here’s how to record and play Photoshop actions, as well as a look at actions I use almost daily.

Recording And Playing Photoshop Actions

The nice thing about Photoshop actions is that they’re fairly uncomplicated. You’re essentially pressing “record” and then doing different edits while Photoshop pays attention to what you’re doing. Then you press stop and can, much like with an audio recording, play it back over and over again and again.

To set up and record a Photoshop action, first open the Actions palette. At the bottom of the window, you’ll see a round icon that, after clicking, records every mouse click you make. So when you’re ready to record a process, click record. After deliberately carrying out your series of edits, click the square icon to stop recording. You may now give your recording a name and file it away with other complementary actions.

If you make a mistake during the recording process you can stop, undo, go back and restart recording at any point. And when you’re done recording, you can always toggle the steps in your action on and off by clicking the checkbox next to each step in the Actions palette. And if you’d like Photoshop to prompt you to input specific values along with any step, click to check the “toggle dialog on and off” box found next to the step’s primary checkbox. You can even assign a shortcut key—such as “Shift F8”—to any action so you can hit that key combo one time and the entirety of the action will proceed. I do this—literally—with every image I edit. Here’s just one of the ways I deploy actions to make my editing process faster and better.


With the advent of Neural Filters, Photoshop has made skin smoothing and face retouching easier and more automatic than ever. I used to do all my retouching manually using a multi-step technique called frequency separation—which I also kicked off with a shortcut key-activated Photoshop action—but the Neural Filters achieve a similar effect in an even more efficient manner.

Instead of using an action to record a series of manual tasks, I use the action to record a skin smoothing Neural Filter. Once Photoshop has automatically improved the skin, I’m then set up to make the final fine-tuning retouching adjustments by hand that are the hallmark of a really finely retouched portrait.

To set up skin smoothing from Neural Filters in an action, start with an open portrait image file. Next, click the record button in the actions palette and note that from here on out everything you do is being recorded by Photoshop for playback. Next, I open the Neural Filters on the Filter menu and click the slider next to Skin Smoothing to turn on (and download, if necessary) the skin smoothing filter.


This filter itself is fairly simple and straightforward. And while there are a lot of different ways it can be deployed, I find that a “less is more” approach usually works quite well. So I start by simply dialing down the Blur Slider to 30 or 40. Next, I adjust the second slider, for Smoothness, and dial it down around -10 to -15. At this point, you’ll see in your image file that the skin has in fact become notably smoother.

Before clicking okay to render the smoothing, there’s one more thing to click. Down at the bottom of the Neural Filters window is a dropdown menu next to the word Output. This is asking where you’d like Photoshop to place these newly retouched pixels. The “current layer” option applies them directly to the background layer that you were working on. “New layer” applies them to a new and otherwise blank image layer, preserving the untouched original layer below. “Duplicate Layer” creates a copy of the whole original layer with the neural edits applied so you can toggle it on and off to see a before and after view. It’s this ability of the Duplicate Layer option and the New Layer option that makes them my preference because not only can I easily see a before and after view, I can also dial back the impact of the filter by dragging down the opacity slider on the filtered layer, showing more of the unretouched original.

It’s for this reason that I sometimes set my neural filter to be a little bit heavy-handed because I know I can bring it back toward a more natural look simply by decreasing the opacity of the filtered layer.


So once I’ve output my neural retouched pixels onto their own layer, I click to activate that layer and then click on the Opacity dropdown near the top of the Layers palette. Here I can dial down the opacity and watch as this lessens the impact of the skin smoothing. Do bear in mind that any clicks I make are still being recorded into the Photoshop action–so dialing back the impact of the filter will happen when you press play in the future.

Once I have established an opacity that looks pleasing to my eye, I merge the existing layers into a new third layer using the Merge functionality (by holding Command-Shift-Option-E or Control-Shift-Option-E on Windows). This third layer now has the retouched layer blended in automatically.

Now I’m ready to click Stop and complete the recording of my action. But I’m not technically quite done yet.


After ceasing the recording, I go to the Photoshop Actions palette and double-click on the name of the action I’ve just made in order to bring up the Action Options window. Here I can assign a shortcut key by choosing a function key (such as F4 or F5) to trigger the action. With the checkboxes adjacent, I can require a shift or command key to be held down along with the function key in order to trigger the action, which is a great workaround if you already have those function keys assigned to other actions.

So now when I’m ready to retouch a portrait, I simply hit Shift+F8 and the action runs automatically so that when I start manually retouching by hand I’m working on an image that’s already better than the original. In moments I’ve got a portrait file that looks better than before, and it’s laid out in such a way that I can dig in and do as much additional retouching as I’d care to. It may be automatic, but Photoshop actions like this allow me to maintain control so that I can make my portraits look better while also being efficient with my time, too. 

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